DETROIT -- The Dodge Caliber small car presents the kind of problem that Chrysler group CEO Tom LaSorda enjoys having. Dealers are selling Calibers as fast as the Chrysler factory at Belvidere, Ill., can crank them out.
"I really like having issues like this - having demand greater than supply," LaSorda said during a recent interview at Chrysler group headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Tom Libby, an analyst for the Power Information Network, says it's still too early to call the Caliber an unqualified success.
But early signals are positive, based on thousands of transactions the network records.
According to PIN data:
- The average Caliber is taking 10 days to leave the dealer lot, and the number is not going up even though the car is in its fifth month on sale.
- The average transaction price, minus cash rebate, has risen steadily and is now $18,100. By comparison, the Chrysler 300's price dropped 2 percent for the first five months.
- The average transaction price of the Caliber rose more in its first five months than that of any other domestic model launched during the past 37 months - up 7 percent.
"That indicates a particularly strong launch and potentially a very strong product - a combination of a new product with a trend in the industry that's playing right into it," he said.
That trend is an industrywide swing toward smaller cars - a trend that Chrysler, with its truck-heavy sales mix, desperately needs.
The challenge for Chrysler will be maintaining its early momentum.
With fuel prices near $3 a gallon in many parts of the country, small cars have blossomed into big sellers. Chrysler views vehicles such as the Pontiac Vibe, Ford Focus ZX5, five-door Mazda3 and Hyundai Elantra GT5 as primary competitors.
That means the Caliber has arrived at a fortuitous time to replace the aging Neon.
Gordon Wangers, CEO of AMCI in Marina del Rey, Calif., says the Caliber's dynamic shape "pops on the road."
"It is well-depicted in their advertising," Wangers says. "It's not confusing to consumers the way some of the early crossovers - say, Pacifica - were."
Jim Hall, an analyst for AutoPacific Inc. in Southfield, Mich., says making the Caliber a hatchback and offering all-wheel drive may give dealers a new selling proposition. The Neon sold mostly on price, Hall said.
Wanted: more Calibers
Dealer Herb Chambers can't get his hands on enough Calibers. He says he has a backlog of 60 orders.
"We're getting allocation of five or six or seven a month," says the owner of Herb Chambers Dodge in Danvers, Mass. "We have a 10-month wait to get them. It is the hottest Dodge product we've had in 10 years."
Andy Palmen, chairman of the Dodge National Dealer Council, says fuel prices are driving shoppers away from large SUVs.
That's a problem for Dodge, which had a 142-day supply of Durangos as of June 1.
But the Caliber seems to be hitting a sweet spot, says Palmen, owner of Palmen Dodge-Jeep in Racine, Wis. "I would love to have 50 of these things (Calibers)," he says. "I would sell at least 30 a month."
Palmen says he had to rent a Caliber from Enterprise Rent-A-Car during May to have one to show customers because he couldn't get his hands on any new cars.
You may e-mail Bradford Wernle at [email protected]